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Sexism: Macho culture and the lessons we can learn from the Middle East

On Wednesday January 9 three members of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), including Sakine Cansız, a founding member of the organisation, were murdered in Paris. There are many theories about who was behind the execution-style killings and most of them relate to conspiracies to derail the current talks between the PKK and Turkey.

It could be that hard-line nationalists or Islamists within the Turkish security forces were behind the murders, although it is far more likely that Iranian or Syrian security forces, anxious about recent progress in negotiations between the Kurdish group and the Turkish state, were responsible. Iran’s security forces have already killed a number of the regime’s opponents in France and got away with it. One thing is clear: whoever was responsible for the murder of the three Kurdish activists made it look like an internal execution. PKK supporters say that in death as in life. Sakine Cansız was an equal to any of the organisation’s men. Others might argue that the ‘macho militarist’ culture of the organisation had another victim.

Although she was a loyal supporter of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, she was no ‘yes woman’. There are unconfirmed reports that she had fallen out with the leadership in the past and that her partner, Mehmet Şener, was killed in the early 1990s as a result of PKK factional infighting. But she engaged in self-criticism and was rehabilitated. Former PKK members recount an incident in the 1990s when Öcalan made fun of prisoners who had just ended a hunger strike, saying: “They sold out the revolution for a bowl of shorba [soup]”. But Sakine, who had just been released from a 13-year prison sentence, stood up against the ‘leader’ and defended the prisoners. A courageous act that, according to the same reports, actually impressed Öcalan.

PKK supporters often claim that the large number of female fighters in their ranks is testimony to the group’s determination to fight patriarchy and Cansız is quoted as saying that that women’s participation in the PKK’s armed struggle was no “token gesture”.

Critics will point out that masculinisation of women in guerrilla organisations is no path to women’s liberation and in many ways I would not disagree with this view. Having said that, Sakine’s life and her commitment to socialism have lessons for all of us. I did not know her, but, reading about her life, I was struck by the similarities with the lives of so many of the Fedayeen women fighters in Kurdistan. I felt I had known her all my life. And in a week when British left politics has been dominated by allegations of sexism in the Socialist Workers Party, it could be that the successes and mistakes of some of the Middle East’s main radical left organisations have lessons for the challenges facing women activists in leftwing European organisations.

For all the PhD theses (usually written by men with little first-hand experience or knowledge of the Fedayeen) about the plight of women in the Organisation of the Iranian People’s Fedayeen, I maintain that my experience as a candidate member, member and full cadre of the OIPFG contradicts all the stereotypical accusations. I am not implying that a militarist organisation with confused politics had overcome sexism. However, given the patriarchal, religious backdrop of the first Islamic regime in the Middle East, or in the case of eastern Turkey, given the predominance of Islamic fundamentalism, the practises of the Fedayeen in the 1980s and the PKK reveal surprising achievements regarding women’s equality. I believe these advances were achieved because members of these organisations took their politics and their commitments to revolutionary change seriously and, despite the serious flaws in their political outlook, their organisational practice was superior to that of the radical left in Europe.

No amount of reading or quoting Engels or Kollontai, no repetition of standard texts about the dual exploitation of women, can help us deal with the current debate about sexism in the SWP. One can safely assume that left activists, and certainly members of the SWP central committee, are familiar with such texts – indeed they quote them regularly and, at least on paper, there is no major difference between the opponents of sexism on the left and those they accuse of sexism. That is why in trying to find answers we might do well by looking at the limited and indeed isolated achievements of the Fedayeen and PKK. Of course, it is perfectly legitimate to use the SWP fiasco to revisit the issue of sexism on the left, but the fact that this aspect has dominated internet discussions on the subject is regrettable – especially as we now have the Daily Mail lecturing us about ‘feminism’!

Of course, the specific conditions of leftwing military operations in the snowy mountains of Iran or Turkey cannot be duplicated. But it is important to establish what can be learnt from the positive and negative aspects of those experiences. This article is not concerned with the shambolic behaviour of the SWP’s CC in relation to allegations of rape (although I would say that sexism was not the cause of that particular problem – more the inevitable consequence of other shortcomings: a rudderless political outlook, lack of strategy, cronyism, and the absence of democracy). No, this article concerns the practices of the Middle Eastern left and the way those practices impact on women’s equality.
Membership

The Fedayeen imposed notoriously stringent membership conditions and, although these were often criticised by other groups, I do think the idea of recruiting ‘revolutionaries’ on the basis of a passing expression of sympathy on a demonstration or protest is far more ridiculous – unless one is only interested in membership quantity, as opposed to quality.

In order to become a member of the Fedayeen, a supporter with a reasonable understanding of its politics would have to pass one, preferably two, tests: emerging from jail with a ‘‘courageous prison record” and surviving a couple of cold winters in the battlegrounds of Kurdistan. These qualifications were obviously specific to a particular era in Iran. However, fighting capitalism in the 21st century is not a dinner party and it is certainly time for the organisations of the radical left to revisit their minimum conditions for membership. There must be happy medium between these two extremes.

Those that think they can build a serious organisation by distributing membership cards at various protests are badly mistaken. It is not surprising that members recruited on such a basis bring with them all sorts of retrograde predispositions or prejudices, including sexist attitudes. It is not surprising that such recruits are ‘impressed’ by the powerful men (or women) in the organisation they have joined.

The membership requirements of the SWP – and indeed many of the other organisations of the radical left – appear to me to be less demanding than those of a gym (you may not actually show up for a workout, but at least you have to pay your subscription). So why are we surprised when ‘yes men’ and indeed ‘yes women’ are the ones who get promoted in the SWP?

The other side of the coin is the cavalier attitude towards lethargy. For all the talk of action to bring about the overthrow of capitalism, we are not talking about a combatant membership: a large chunk of the 7,000-plus men and women who are supposed to be SWP members cannot be considered activists, let alone serious revolutionaries, so why should we expect them to have conquered sexism?
Sexist society

One reason why guerrilla organisations have a better record of combating sexism is because they are isolated from society. Their members do not interact within normal society. The claim that Fedayeen women activists of the 1980s were totally ‘liberated’ must be taken with a pinch of salt. However, there is no doubt that separation from day-to-day family tasks did present unparalleled ‘opportunities’ for women. We live in a patriarchal society and removal from it at least presents us with the possibility of creating conditions where sexism can be more easily combated.

By definition guerrilla women did not have household responsibilities. Either we were childless or those with children had their offspring looked after by parents or relatives in cities and villages far from the battlefield. We did not have any gender-specific duties, so, in that respect, living in a collective military base was to a very limited extent like living in post-revolutionary conditions. Female comrades in European leftwing organisations (maybe with the exception of a few full-timers) spend the majority of their time in a sexist environment – as wage-earners (often on lower wages than their male counterparts), as carers for children and the elderly, as unpaid workers doing housework (and, in the vast majority of cases, spending many more hours on housework than the men they live with). At the best of times it would be impossible to expect a political organisation to deal with the day-to-day discrimination women activists face in society – discrimination unrelated to party activity.

To overcome this situation there are difficult personal, social and political choices to be made and in my opinion those who put politics in command often come out of it stronger. As women, we may vent all our frustrations about sexual inequality within the political organisations to which we belong. It is certainly easy to play the role of the victim, but for a revolutionary such attitudes are cop-outs. If we are to combat sexism within our organisations, we must start by building female comrades’ self-confidence.

Women activists are often their own worst enemy when it comes to their own capabilities, organisationally and politically. On this issue we must rebel against stereotyped work. We need to consider the possibility of ditching housework and reducing care duties so that we have enough time to write articles, to participate in meetings, to organise. But many female comrades are not in a position to do so – who would look after their children? Who would care for their elderly parent? Some do not want to do so, yet all of us expect miracles from our political organisation.
Physical and mental

Even guerrilla organisations take note of the fact that there are physical differences between men and women, and some tasks are more suited to women’s physical capabilities.

However, life in a combat zone leaves little room for chivalry. Women might be issued with lighter guns and in the case of the Fedayeen, female combatants had to come to terms with the company of a dedicated male bodyguard, who would have his gun pointed to her head when they ventured into dangerous areas. This bizarre custom was meant to ensure that the organisation would never allow a female fighter to fall into the hands of the Islamic regime. Upon arrival in Kurdistan, my immediate reaction to this practice was to condemn it as an insult. But a few weeks into my stay, having heard about the kind of torture Islamic Guards reserved for communist women, I actually found it reassuring that my bodyguard would make sure I was dead rather than taken prisoner. It was a practical step taken to deal with a specific issue.

However, with the exception of this single practice, men and women wore the same uniform, performed the same tasks, were treated more or less equally in the camp, in battle and in the division of labour.

In Kurdistan, maybe because we lived so far from reality (away from capitalist commodity fetishism, away from the false modesty imposed by the Shia state) our appearance seemed to have no significance and this in itself had a liberating effect. Qualities such as the ability to debate, organise and, yes, shoot accurately, were considered far more important than looks – our military uniform did not leave much room for coquetry. Both in Kurdistan and later as the representative of the organisation abroad, I was well aware that using make-up and spending time on one’s appearance in other ways were considered serious flaws.

I know this will be frowned upon by modern feminists, but if revolutionary women are to be equal with men there must come a time when we stop becoming victims of commodity fetishism – a time when we refuse to be concerned about our appearance. Apart from anything else, this will leave us more time for politics, its theory and practice. Whether we like it or not, the inequality in terms of the time we spend on non-political tasks – be it family, housework , childcare or our appearance – does contribute to our lack of confidence. It does make us victims of a sexist culture, sexist society. It is up to us individually and collectively to change this – we cannot expect men to do it for us.
Power and sex

Throughout their clandestine life in Iranian cities, the Fedayeen banned sexual relations of any kind between members of the organisation. Both the pre-1979 Fedayeen and the PKK have been accused of executing comrades for breaking such rules, and the shah’s secret police and some on the Iranian left keep repeating the allegation that the Fedayeen would impose the death penalty for initiating a relationship with another member of the organisation. Although this allegation is completely false, the sex ban does reveal the kind of discipline considered necessary to confront the dangers presented by clandestine political activity in a police state.

Of course, such a ban would both be ridiculous and represent an interference in the private lives of comrades under any other circumstances, but there is no doubt that the left has to deal with the issue of the abuse of power by men, and occasionally women. However, the simple answer must be to combat bureaucracy, privilege and kowtowing to those in positions of power. It is wrong – and counterrevolutionary – to encourage an admiration of senior cadres simply because of the position they hold, or to promote myths about their intellectual or organisational capabilities to encourage respect for their rank. Such practices can result in a cult of personality – to the detriment of the building of a serious political organisation.

The issue is not one of sexual abuse, pure and simple (although elements of such abuse exist). It is one of unaccountable power. That is what the members and supporters of all working class organisations must constantly be on their guard against.

 

Balatarin